The Justice Department decided Tuesday against appealing a federal court ruling that extends Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to veterans who served on ships off the Vietnam coast during the war.
The decision paves the way for as many as 90,000 veterans to receive health care and compensation from the VA for health conditions presumed to be related to Agent Orange.
The VA fought for years against providing disability compensation to Vietnam War veterans known as the Blue Water Navy, arguing that it was not obligated to by law because those vets did not serve within the territory of Vietnam.
But in January, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in favor of a Blue Water Navy veteran, Alfred Procopio, 73, and other veterans, deciding that they should be eligible for benefits provided to troops who were stationed on the ground or who served on inland waterways and have Agent Orange-linked diseases.
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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in March the department would recommend that the Justice Department not fight the decision, but Justice requested several extensions for filing an appeal, leaving the veterans in limbo and prompting Congress to take up legislative action to guarantee them benefits.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that extending benefits to these veterans will cost $1.1 billion over the next 10 years. The VA has said the cost may be closer to $5.5 billion.
"This is a huge victory for tens of thousands of deserving veterans who were arbitrarily stripped of their earned benefits," Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a news release.
The VA has not released information as to when it will begin processing claims from Blue Water Navy veterans. However, Wilkie said in March that the department has already "started serving 51,000 Blue Water Navy veterans."
In May, the House unanimously passed legislation that would require the VA to extend benefits to veterans who served on vessels within an area stipulated by the legislation. The Senate has not taken up the bill, which some veterans have said is more restrictive than the Procopio ruling.
The VFW still wants to see passage of the bill, H.R. 299, in the Senate "to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs can never again interpret the intent of the law differently."
That statement was in reference to a VA argument that the law did not require the department to extend benefits to Blue Water Vietnam veterans because it stipulated that covered vets must have "served in the Republic of Vietnam," and the VA did not consider the territorial seas to fall under that language.
"The VFW is very glad this case is now over," Lawrence said. "Now we can focus on getting H.R. 299 passed into law to protect benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans and expand much needed benefits for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand and the Korean demilitarized zone."
Alfred Procopio Jr. served on the carrier Intrepid and has diabetes and prostate cancer -- diseases that are listed among 14 linked to Agent Orange exposure that automatically qualify a diagnosed veteran for disability compensation.
Procopio's initial disability claim for the diseases was denied more than 10 years ago.
"Finally, justice for many of the Blue Water Vietnam veterans who have waited long enough to be granted the disability benefits they need and deserve based on their exposure to Agent Orange," said Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a non-profit that fought nearly four years for benefits for its client, Vietnam veteran Jonathan Haas, and other Blue Water Navy veterans.
"We hope now that all parties involved will move expeditiously to give these veterans the long-overdue disability benefits they rightfully deserve," Stichman said.